Job Description

I wish the very name of artist was abolished. It’s simply a bad smell, it’s not even good English...I’m a painter, a working man, a tradesman. Joyce Cary, "The Horse's Mouth"

"Artist" is too vague a word for my tastes. I can't conjure up a mental image of what an “artist” does. Think deep aesthetic thoughts, perhaps? Engage with the sublime for hours on end?  

Vilhelm Hammershoi, “Interior” oil on linen

Vilhelm Hammershoi, “Interior” oil on linen

But "painter" is a word I can wrap my head around. A painter works with tools--brushes, pigment, canvas--to make an actual, real object. Painting is a profession that, like law or plumbing, requires training, specialized abilities, and the need to show up for work on a regular basis.

It's also a profession that most folks don't know exists.

Avigdor Arikha, “Studio Cupboard”, oil on linen

Avigdor Arikha, “Studio Cupboard”, oil on linen

For the general population, art is a fun activity, not a job. Tell the people standing next to you at a party that you're a painter, and it’s quite likely they'll respond that their aunt, nephew, or daughter is an artist, too.

Many people today enjoy creative pursuits. Just take a look at instagram or facebook—they're  packed with budding artists sharing their output.

“Van Gogh Selfie”, from the Museum of Selfies

“Van Gogh Selfie”, from the Museum of Selfies

And that's a good thing! I wish even more folks painted, wrote poems, made music, danced. The world would be a happier place.

Henri Matisse, “Dance ii, oil on canvas

Henri Matisse, “Dance ii, oil on canvas

But not many people understand the difference between art as play, and art as work. When you’re just getting started in the field, it can be an important, and sometimes confusing, distinction. We expect to feel inspired to get going in that studio every day—and yet often the motivation isn’t there.

One definition of "professional artist" is someone who doesn't always enjoy their painting, writing or composing, and yet they get up and do it every day, anyway.  (And when not actually doing it, they're excitedly thinking about it, or obsessively worrying over it.)

John Singer Sargent, “An Artist in His Studio”, oil on canvas

John Singer Sargent, “An Artist in His Studio”, oil on canvas

The Internal Revenue Service agrees with this distinction of creative work vs. creative play when they're gauging whether someone has the right to take deductions for art expenses. Never tell an IRS agent during an audit that you love being an artist. They want to know that you will paint, or take photographs, or make wooden bowls, or ink drawings, even when it bores you, or feels like torture.

Eugene Andolsek, “Kaleidoscopic Drawing”, colored inks on graph paper

Eugene Andolsek, “Kaleidoscopic Drawing”, colored inks on graph paper

Tax collectors know that professional work, whether it involves art or widgets, is defined by regularity of practice, focus on details, and commitment to the long haul. To the IRS, an artist is just another sole proprietor working at all the varied tasks of running a small business: manufacturing a product, maintaining a work space, publicity and marketing, record-keeping.

The government could care less about "creativity" or “inspiration" or "self-expression," those sexy things that seem so important to the general public when they're imagining what an artist does.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Artists and Models, oil on canvas

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Artists and Models, oil on canvas

The IRS is right to have such a practical approach to defining an artist's career, because our work is largely practical. But there's also so much more to it than the nuts and bolts of running a business. Creative work, with its unique debits and rewards, is unlike any other field.

Isabella Quintanilla, “Studio in Late Afternoon” (b & w), oil on canvas

Isabella Quintanilla, “Studio in Late Afternoon” (b & w), oil on canvas

If I was hiring someone to fill the role of professional artist, the job description I'd place in the want-ads would read something like this:

Years of intensive training, and strong skill-set required. Must be willing to show up for work alone every day despite occasional, and possibly persistent, self doubt and low confidence. Income probably not commensurate with experience. No benefits offered-- except for total independence, the deep satisfaction of making something out of nothing, and occasional flashes of pure joy.  

Susan Abbott, “Landscape Painters”, watercolor

Susan Abbott, “Landscape Painters”, watercolor

Your comments are welcome below!